A Visit to Baluchistan
Geologist, Dr Phillip Hellman shares his experience of a visit to Baluchistan, Remeshk and Tehran.
Iran Shahr and the Journey to Remeshk
The point of entry for me to the Iranian province of Sistan va Baluchistan was Iran Shahr, the last major town before Afghanistan and Pakistan. I arrived by air with my three geologist colleagues, Hossein, Mohsen and Mahmood. I am the only foreigner on the flight and I sense that this is a part of the world that few foreigners visit. The local uniform consists of baggy trousers, dazzling white for those who appear to project status, and a loosely fitting shirt. I would, in a day or so, long for such loosely fitting clothes as I climb the hills in the desert heat.
The women in the town wear a similar garb to the men though with darker colours and longer trousers that tactfully conceal their ankles. Shawls are the only extra addition, though unlike the Teheran women, no boundaries are being challenged and I did not see evidence of rebellion such as streaks in the hair or coloured shawls or even shawls that are pushed back from the forehead. There was no provocative deliberate exposure of forearms.
Iran Shahr is a dusty town and possesses a wonderful looking fort. Unfortunately, I was advised not to walk outside our hotel because of the “crazy people” that do unpredictable things. Perhaps this was related to it being on a major drug route. Staying inside sounded like good advice especially as I noticed that my paler Teheran friends also remained indoors. The citizens of this most south-eastern part of Iran are quite different in facial appearance. They are similar to the cricketers from Pakistan that we Australians have come to respect but distinctly darker than the true Persians from further west. The language is different and the attractive mosques mark them out as Sunni rather than the majority who, in Iran, are Shia.
Our party had already inadvertently gained considerable respect from the local purveyors of plastic bags. Such bags are ideal for the transportation of certain unacceptable and mind-expanding substances and vegetable matter. Our requirement was considerably larger than most. An explanation was required – perhaps a new syndicate had moved in? The presence of a foreigner could only mean that this was a potentially serious operation. Our explanation of the bags being for samples of rocks and dirt was, of course, accepted with great cynicism. It was unheard-of.
Our trip south-west to Remeshk takes five hours. Haji Reza is our local contact and has an impressive bearing. He drives a European sedan, has two wives and carries a white beard that merges with his gleaming shirt and trousers. After a turn-off from the road west to Bam, the site of the terrible earthquake in 2004, the road quickly degenerates. We find ourselves in a massive flat valley that consists of a maze of braided wadis that have formed from recent uplift due to collision of continents. The subsequent mass erosion has resulted in deposition of boulders and cobbles, gravels and sands. Cliffs of semi-lithified gravel define the edges of the watercourses. Poking through the wadis are basement rocks that appear like icebergs floating in a sea of gravel.
Two speakers situated at the back of the car entertain us with Balochi music. When Haji Rezer was not looking I placed my hat snugly over the one behind my head and dulled the sound. I could not escape, however, the cigarette smoke. Oh for a fatwa against smoking! At least in confined spaces. The track exploits the base of various wadis and we get bogged several times in the loose sand and gravel. These stops, as well as a break for afternoon prayers, were opportunities for fresh air. We arrive at Remeshk after nightfall.
It is mid-May and the summer is already here. First light is well before 5am and the sun reflects off a western rampart of ancient sea floor that was thrust upwards as tectonic plates jostled together. These are still jostling, as recent tragic earthquakes testify. This ancient sea-floor is the object of our curiosity as a possible source of copper. We have, however, been beaten to the metal by several thousand years as evidenced by signs of activities of ancient miners who have left acres of slag debris. Our object of curiosity is a remote ancient mining operation several hours from our village.
Our Balochi drivers arrive at the village in battered Toyota pick-up trucks whose sound systems, fortunately, have failed long ago. Communication between vehicles and back to the village and even to Teheran is no problem. Mobile phones and goat-herding appear to be in harmony. The Balochi support-crew ride on the back together with a few curious boys. I suspect our appearance would strike terror into the hearts of any well-meaning, but lost, UN or NGO delegation. Balochi scarves stream in the wind as we rattle and bang our way up the wadis and along the tracks in the higher plateau areas that join scattered hamlets. Some of the gears are by-passed with skilful work on the clutch. Reverse does not appear to be a reliable option and the passengers are required to assist with extrication of the vehicles from deep sand along the valley floors.
It is too hot to investigate the site on arrival so we pause for lunch in the shade of a watercourse. Heads of poppy seeds litter the ground. Parallel cuts on the heads signify that the syrup had been harvested. They make ideal spoons for our tinned beans by cutting out a portion of the dried head.
In pursuit of one possible location of copper we drive along a remote valley and leave the cars to walk towards some high crags. The afternoon sun dulls the enthusiasm of the team so Jan Mahommed and I head off by ourselves. Our feet brushed against various aromatic herbs as we climbed up from the saddle where we left our party. Jan would pluck their leaves and crush them for me to savour. Wild mint and oregano lined the tracks. Later it was explained to me that sheep which graze upon the wild mint have the sweetest meat.
We sat together as I gathered my breath. The last rays of the sun clipped the top of the eastern rampart of jagged hills. I sensed that Jan Mahommed was as in awe of the beauty of the high valley as I was. I gestured to the panorama and said, using the few words of Farsi that I knew, “khaily koob” meaning “very good’. Several Balochi words were spoken in a way that suggested agreement. I pointed to the heavens and exclaimed “Allah akbar”. He was a Balochi man born of the desert. Life largely revolved around goats and the location of springs in the valleys. I had a sense that were both quietly celebrating what we saw before us.
Jan bounded upwards in a direction that did not seem logical. I had an incipient headache that was a signal of insufficient water. How could I explain this to him? One of his sandal straps snapped but he was well prepared and lashed it together with palm fronds he had collected in obvious anticipation of such an event. We followed an old goat track that soon led us to the others. Droppings from the porcupine showed that, despite appearances, life did exist.
My friend found a small palm whose white flesh from the base of its fronds is edible. We chewed morsels to help moisten our mouths as we descended the gorge that led as back to the main valley of the abandoned village. A spring un-noticed on the way up was a welcome stop. I would drink about two litres of water before I felt comfortable. The heat of the day had now subsided and the last kilometre was walked in near darkness. We fantasized about ladling cool water over our heads from the water urns in the village “bathroom” (there is only one).
It was late when we arrived back at our camp. I took my boots off longing to wash my feet. We then learnt that there was no water left for washing that night. The tractor carting the water had failed to appear. We would have to wait another day.
The oppressive heat resulted in Haji Reza and Hossein, my geologist colleague, sleeping outside our shelter to catch whatever breeze there was. Jan Mahommed’s three year old daughter, Salima, appeared. She was at an age that cared not about the protocols of social interaction. What was her future? We discussed that general topic in the context of arranged marriages and the early marriage of the women. Then Hossein reminded us that “love is the language of the city”. Our concerns for her future welfare are not those of the desert.
Haji Reza had been somewhat quiet on the trip from Iran Shahr to Remeshk. On the return trip, however, he was animated and engaged in conversation for much of the four hour journey. A few hours earlier I had discovered the reason for this transformation. The last day of our field work was oppressively hot, later I learnt that many had suffered heat-stroke in that part of Iran and neighbouring Pakistan during the heat-wave that lasted several days.
We decided to start at dawn and complete several hours in the field before returning to our koop. I had never seen opium being smoked before but the sight of Reza and the village elders sprawled on the floor sharing opium pipes was something unexpected, especially before a five hour drive. I diplomatically mentioned to one of my geologist colleagues that drinking and driving do not go well together. I was unsure about rules or guidelines about opium levels and driving. The reply was unexpected and reassured me. Apparently he would be “so wired up” that he could drive to Teheran!
During the return trip, every now and again, I detected my name, or at least its Balochi version from Reza’s lips. There was after one such mention much guffawing from our Haji friend and the others in the vehicle. I had to inquire as to the reason for this mirth.
Hossein was evasive and replied that it is better that I not know. Although I was unfamiliar with the effects of opium I assumed inhibitions had been lowered. I took the plunge and suggested that “marital relations” were under discussion. A sanitised version of the Haji’s conversation related to his concern that I may not be able to have the physical stamina to take a second wife unlike him who had taken a much younger wife and, I am sure, was feeling somewhat superior.
Although I had received a censored translation, I replied, that this would, of course, be no problem for me if the opportunity arose though some cultural adaptation in Sydney would be required. His esteem of me rose considerably. I could now greet him as an equal but I dared not suggest the possibility of the ensuing jihad that would surely be declared by she who would now be the “senior wife”. This would be a complete loss of face.
I inquired about nocturnal arrangements, were they difficult to coordinate? The hand gesture, the raised eyebrow and a slight tilt of the head was all that was needed as an explanation. It meant this is never an issue, at least for my Haji friend. More guffawing and I sensed that my question, although somewhat indelicate, was exactly what my single-wife companions from Teheran had longed to ask. They will have to wait for the next Australian who fears not to make such inquiries.
During rest breaks in the day when the heat was unbearable and in the evenings back at our village and over many cups of chai I discussed various issues facing my Iranian colleagues. My geologist-friend Mohsen is a slightly built, wiry and shorter than my other colleagues. He does not have the look of the typical Persian.
Mohsen explained a problem. At the age of twenty eight, after his undergraduate science degree, then his Masters and now two years into a PhD, plus some extra time to help pay for food and lodgings, it was time to think about securing a wife. This, however, is not straightforward. He is a Lur from Lorestan in western Iran and it is expected, and even natural, to choose a partner from the same group. Fortunately, through a mutual friend, he had met a suitable candidate. Later, he met up with her again in circumstances that must surely be ideal for someone from a society in which close personal contact has complications.
He had learnt that she was a dentist and, with some nervousness, had arranged a dental check-up. He was unaware of any problems with his teeth, a fact which he knew with a touch of guilt. The examination by a possible future partner was an unequalled opportunity. A close inspection of her visage was indeed providential. The check-up went well, her shawl slipped at various moments during the examination giving good opportunity for detailed assessment. Unfortunately, she confirmed his worst fears. His teeth were in remarkably good condition.
Mohsen confided in me concerning his predicament. Was there a solution? I suggested that he take her to dinner. That, however, would be a problem due to his financial exigencies. I sympathised knowing what it is like to be at the end of one’s geological studies with no money, without a discernable immediate future of reasonable income or even a guarantee of placement close to civilisation. This is not a state that is likely to impress. I had been in a similar quandary some thirty years ago when my first job offer was an assignment based in a caravan in a remote part of Australia’s Northern Territory. My fiancé was less than impressed even though the caravan was, however, said to have been air-conditioned.
After our return from our Balochi adventure, I accepted an invitation to visit Mohsen’s university dormitory lodgings in Teheran. The building was, pre-revolution, a hotel that once had some distinction. On my way up to his room I passed a gathering of earnest-looking students sitting at the feet of a white-turbaned mullah.
On the way down the elevator stuck between floors, it shuddered several times and one of the students pushed out a trap-door in the ceiling to help ventilate the constrained space. I have been stuck in a lift only once before and that was in the humid heat of Conakry, West Africa. On that occasion it was pitch black due to a general electricity failure and I was the only occupant. Memories of that flashed before me and I felt nervous. Does one jump just before the lift crashes into the base of the lift-well? After a few false starts and sounding the alarm for several minutes we managed to get out. I pointed to a sign in Farsi and asked its meaning. Embarrassed, Mohsen replied that a maximum of four persons are only permitted, there were five of us.
His room was shared with two other students. During the day there was only room for one bed. Two mattresses were stacked against a peeling wall. Dried fish were sitting on a bed of rice in a cooker with some vegetables on the floor. Text-books lined the walls with subjects that reflected the interests of the occupiers, circuitry and its mathematics, electronics, mechanical engineering and geology. Some of these books, on closer inspection, were actually photocopies, many seemed to be out of date. These talented young men deserved better.
On my way back to my hotel, I suggested that he needed to arrange a toothache. This was felt by Mohsen to be somewhat fraudulent. I wondered to myself whether the attraction was to a potential partner with financial stability. I asked him whether he liked her. Yes, she seemed easy to talk to, they could discuss things. Was she attractive? “Intermediate” was the description with a gesture of the hands that I think supported my mental translation of this description. Without the possibility of him taking her out to dinner perhaps it could be suggested that she cook dinner for him? This, however, would be highly unusual.
During a lull in a meeting the next day I inquired about progress and whether he had booked a follow-up appointment. Things had, however, accelerated to a pace that had somewhat alarmed Mohsen. Although keen on pursuing the relationship, this was the first time that he had even a fleeting relationship with a female. He had phoned her earlier that morning and she suggested that their respective parents meet. This could only have one meaning.
With some urgency he was departing that night on a long bus trip to meet her and to, if at all possible, slow things down. I sensed that a momentum had gathered that was now far too late to stop. The cost and time of a dental consultation would constitute a remarkably inexpensive and rapid courtship, if courtship is the appropriate word.
During our discussions Mohsen expressed a great interest in Mary, called Mariam in the Koran. He had been especially moved by reading the Koranic account of her life and the birth of Jesus. So much so that he would like to name his own daughters after her. He exclaimed that he loves Jesus and he loves Mary. Such was his interest in things Christian that we visited an Arminian Church in Teheran. He admired its beauty and the images of Mary. Discussions concerning literature, poetry, theology, philosophy and politics come naturally to the many Iranians I have met.
Dr Hellman is a consulting resource geologist and geochemist with over thirty years’ experience in mineral exploration and the advanced evaluation of mineral projects. He is involved in numerous minerals projects within Australia and overseas and is based in H&SC’s Sydney office. He served on Australia’s Joint Ore Reserves Committee (JORC) as an Australian Institute of Geoscientists’ representative for 13 years.